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Ghate at Georgetown on the Principle behind Free Speech

Few concepts are as celebrated and simultaneously misunderstood today as that of “free speech.” Although there are increasing calls to “limit” freedom of speech, not many people, especially in America, will come out against free speech explicitly. Disagreement about the concept is over how to understand it: each side will typically vie for the title of being the true defender of the value, accusing the other of being its enemy. We see this everywhere today, in controversies about social media, higher education, and politics.

Recently my colleague Onkar Ghate participated in a forum hosted by the Federalist Society at Georgetown University Law Center: “Free Speech: Myths and Realities.” You can watch a recording of Ghate (and some back and forth with Georgetown law professor John Hasnas) here:

If you watch, you’ll see him bring some real clarity to one of the most important cultural-political issues of our day, by putting it in its proper historical and philosophical context.

The most important piece of context is the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Here Ghate applies a theme he explored in greater depth in a recent pair of essays reprinted in this journal (and originally published in a recent volume on Ayn Rand’s political philosophy). This is the idea that there is an important connection between the various freedoms articulated in that amendment: freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, and freedom to peaceably assemble and to petition the government. All of them, he suggests, protect an individual’s need to explore the truth or falsehood of ideas for him- or herself, and act accordingly.

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That is, all of them are aspects of the broader principle of intellectual freedom, a principle first championed systematically by the Founding Fathers and other Enlightenment philosophers in the period leading up to the signing of the Bill of Rights.

In his presentation and the question-and-answer session that follows, Ghate argues that this perspective on free speech has important and even radical implications for how to understand the meaning of the principle.

A principled commitment to intellectual freedom entails the repudiation of all state-sponsored art, science, and education.
For instance, if free speech is fundamentally a form of intellectual freedom, what does this mean for actions that involve speech not used for intellectual purposes, not used to persuade, but, say, to physically threaten? This perspective helps explain why such actions do not fall under the scope of First Amendment protection.

To take another example: If free speech is fundamentally a form of intellectual freedom, and the principle of intellectual freedom implies that the state should not abridge the peaceful exercise of a religion, but also not establish a religion, what does this mean for state promotion or sponsorship or endorsement of other ideological content? This perspective suggests why a principled commitment to intellectual freedom entails the repudiation of all state-sponsored art, science, and education.

Other questions explored by both Ghate and Hasnas in this video include: Is free speech an absolute? Does it imply the right to the material means required to communicate one’s ideas? Are social media platforms “public spaces” in which we all have “free speech” rights to operate with the support of platforms whose owners may not agree with what we say? Do corporations have the right to “regulate” the speech of their employees?

Check out the whole video. The fact that Ghate is able to derive and advocate the controversial implications of free speech that he does, without fear of government reprisal, shows that free speech is not yet dead.

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Ben Bayer

Ben Bayer, Ph.D. in philosophy and formerly a professor, is a fellow at the Ayn Rand Institute.

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